Lithuania 2011: Vilnius 2

I was woken this morning at 5.55am by the sound of beeping. I didn’t think it was the fire alarm but I got up and stood bare-footed on the balcony (quite cold at that time of morning) to try and work out what it was before concluding it was coming from further down the road, finding my earplugs and going back to bed.

When I went down to have breakfast I was given a plate with food already on it. There were three slices of salami, four diagonal slices of cucumber and three slices of cheese that looked like it had been out too long. I drank the apple juice and had two bits of bread and butter, then I made my escape.

I didn’t get out until 10.30 (the beeping was still going!) but that is apparently quite early by Vilnius standards. People didn’t start appearing until about midday.

I wandered down through the Old Town, where all the shops looked closed and seemed to sell either linen or amber but not a lot else, except Emporio Armani, which looked quite out of place. The tourist information is in the town hall in the middle of the Old Town – a big white thing with pillars in front of a triangular square with some sort of complicated one way system around it.

Sooner than I’d expected, I found myself at the cathedral. It looked big and square and a lot less cathedral-like than I would expect and it acted like a giant windblock. The sun was out, the sky was clear and blue but the air was icy and the wind was freezing.

From the cathedral I crossed the road onto Gediminas Prospektas which was wide and clean and bright and non-intimidating. Gradually I started to recognise shops – first Vision Express, then United Colours of Benetton. I also spotted a takeaway with my favourite name ever – Wok To Walk. I went into a shopping centre called Gedimino9 which seemed not quite finished, with at least a floor and a half still empty but it had a supermarket. I bought bread rolls and plastic cheese slices and crackers and chocolate and drink and had a picnic on a bench, where the local pigeons soon realised they weren’t getting anything and wandered off. Plastic cheese slices are perfect for picnics like that.

Next I wandered down a side street that seemed to have shops and stopped off in a toyshop. I got to the end and turned round to come down the next one and back onto Gediminas Prospektas.

This one came out opposite a sort of park on the side of a hill. I crossed the road to climb up the park but got distracted by a trolleybus causing chaos by coming off the overhead wires right in the middle of the junction. The driver got out, pulled the poles down, did something to the ends and they went back up and stayed up. Two minutes later the traffic was clear, I had plenty of photos and had been entertained. I went on up my hill.

It was slippery. I’d seen plenty of ice and snow but this time it made it difficult to walk. The centre of the pathways was gritted but the sides were either crunchy ice (easy to walk on) or sheet ice (lethal to walk on). I scrambled to the top and surveyed the view. A junction and a few buildings. I came back down, taking it very carefully. It was very icy.

Now I was back on Gediminas Prospektas. I went in Marks & Spencer. Everything was English, although the food had stickers on the back with Lithuanian translations. Now I know where to go if I need salt & vinegar crisps (are they labelled ‘British-style crisps’ at home? Nothing else on the packaging seemed changed).

I went on a bit further. Past the casino, past a geographically challenged restaurant called Tokyo China and down to the river, from where I could see the big glass shopping centre I’d gone past yesterday. I decided to start retracing my steps and slowly make my way back to the hotel.

First stop on the way back was another bookshop. I can’t remember the translation for Eragon/Eldest and the other one which I can’t spell (how do you translate made-up words like that, anyway?) but I saw ‘Haris Poterius’ and Clarkson and the Twilight series.

Next stop was the cathedral. I sat on a bench in the sun, sheltered from the wind. After a while it occurred to me that I wasn’t so much people-watching as traffic-watching but it was still entertaining. Lots of cars had studded tyres and made a noise like a rainstick as they went past. The Irish Embassy was opposite, so I took a St Patrick’s Day in Vilnius photo of its flag fluttering in the wind.

My original plan was to head home and see Gediminas Tower tomorrow but it was a bright, clear day which it might not be tomorrow and I didn’t have anything else to do. The road up was closed but the sign said to use the funicular instead.

I walked the circumference of the hill and was almost back at the cathedral before I found the funi, hiding inside the old Bishops Palace. There were no proper signs for it; I wondered if I’d be arrested for just wandering in, but no. Station hiding around the corner and besides, these days it’s all part of the Lithuanian National Museum. I bought a ticket and was put in the funi. It’s like a sloping lift. You get in on your own, no driver, and press the button to go up and down when you like, as long as you’re down by 9pm when the museum gates are closed.

Th view was spectacular. To the north was ‘downtown Vilnius’, just blocks of flats as far as the eye can see, then the Hill of Three Crosses, then a 180• panorama of the Old Town and about 10,000 churches. Then there was the newest district, a handful of glass towers (where I accidentally went yesterday). It was windy but worth it. I sat in the shelter of a little brick hut and ate some chocolate looking at Gediminas Tower. Turns out you can go up there too.

There are three floors of museum – first how the castle would have looked in the 14th and 17th centuries, then some armour and weaponry, then modern independent Lithuanian. And then you’re on the roof.

It’s the same panorama as from the hill but a bit higher. It’s magnificent. I nearly didn’t go up there; the tower door was closed and unlike the shops there’s no open sign on it. But I’d seen people on the roof so I pushed the door. I’m very glad I did.

Now it was time to head home. I came down in the funi, no less fun coming down than going up and since I was going back to the hotel, I decided to go inside the cathedral first.

It’s quite white and minimalist inside, apart from St Casimir’s Chapel which is a riot of black marble and silver statues and decoration everywhere decoration can possibly be put. It struck me how many people were actually praying, either in or in front of the chapels or in the main cathedral itself. There were also a cleaning team, one up a ladder polishing the statues and the other dusting with an extremely long-handled duster. And at the back, there was an old lady lying on a bench, looking spookily like one of the statues on a tomb.

After that I really did head back. My feet were starting to hurt. I ambled back through the Old Town,taking photos, finding my local Guinness-serving English pub (complete with red phone box), making vague plans for tomorrow and eventually hobbled back to the hotel at 3.20. Bit early but I’d seen and done a lot and run out of energy.

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